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Occupy Wall Street Forgives $100,000 of Medical Debt (and Counting!)

Behind the scenes of the the Rolling Jubilee telethon and variety show on November 15th. (Photo: notanalternative / flickr)

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Last month, Care2 reported on an exciting new project coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Called “The Rolling Jubilee,” this effort claimed that it would use the power of crowdfunding to buy and pay off the 99%’s debt for pennies on the dollar.

“If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect,” wrote blogger and OWS organizer David Rees. “We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.”

More awesome indeed! The campaign to raise funds for the Rolling Jubilee kicked off with a telethon and variety show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on November 15th. Although the plans made headlines around the world leading up to the event, there have been no updates, until now.

Just in time for the holidays, members of Strike Debt and The Rolling Jubilee recently announced that the campaign raised nearly half a million dollars — enough to buy and forgive nearly $10 million of debt. And just this week, the activists gathered to send out notifications to the unsuspecting recipients of this first round of debt forgiveness.

Most of the collected money will be used to purchase a big hunk of distressed medical debt next month, reports the Village Voice. But as a sort of proof-of-concept, Strike Debt has already spent $5,000 to buy $100,000 of distressed medical debt owed by 44 people in upstate New York. In order to avoid getting tossed out with the junk usually found in mailboxes, the forgiveness letters were packaged in a small box wrapped in festive paper. Here’s what they say:

“Seasons Greetings from Strike Debt!”

“We write with good news: the above referenced account has been purchased by the Rolling Jubilee Fund, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. The Rolling Jubilee Fund is a project of Strike Debt. The mission of this project is to buy and abolish personal debt. We believe that no one should have to go into debt for the basic things in our lives, like healthcare, housing, and education. You no longer owe the balance of this debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to open that letter? Better yet, can you imagine the profound impact it makes to realize that this wasn’t the work of a national charity or wealthy benefactor, but the result of thousands of people just like you coming together to support and lift each other up?

The sending of these initial debt forgiveness letters is a victory in another way as well. When the Rolling Jubilee first hit the headlines, critics were ready and waiting to poke holes in the idea. Some wondered if the money would ever really be used to pay back debts. Some said that it was “a gimmick with a tax risk” and could lead to penalties for recipients when it comes time to file taxes in April. Strike Debt smartly enlisted help from a lawyer who works in the tax department at a top international law firm to disprove these claims, which she did quickly.

All technical details aside, what Strike Debt has done is a huge disruption of the predatory cycle of debt that has become the norm in this country. Conversely, it’s but a drop in the bucket when you consider all of the distressed debt that’s still dragging the 99% down. ”This is a social hack,” said Laura Hanna of Strike Debt. “A lot of people didn’t know that their debts were on fire sale, that their debts could be bought for pennies on the dollar, just not by them.”

The group says it has at least two more debt buys planned in the coming months.

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